top of page
  • Writer's pictureSanja Nivesjö and Jade Munslow Ong

Research Trip to South Africa July-September 2022

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

In this blog post, Sanja Nivesjö and Jade Munslow Ong discuss their recent research trip to South Africa. Cape Town 14th – 23rd July: All That Is Buried

On the first leg of the trip, we were joined in Cape Town by colleagues Maire Tracey, Simon Stanton-Sharma and Matthew Whittle (Kent), where we made the film, All That Is Buried. The film explores South African creativity today and you can read our blogpost about it here.

The film will be screened as part of the Being Human Festival 2022 (17:30-19:00 Friday 11th November) and you can book free tickets here. Makhanda 23rd July-13th August: Amazwi South African Museum of National Literature

Bidding farewell to Maire and Simon, we then travelled with Matt to Makhanda (Grahamstown) to conduct research in the archives held at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. Amazwi is hosted in a beautiful building that pays homage to some of South Africa’s most influential writers.

The Museum is a repository for manuscripts, letters and artefacts relating to literature in all of South Africa’s languages, and features exhibitions on South African literary history, some of which can be seen online. A new exhibit on 'Literary Legends' represents Amazwi's commitment to collecting literature in indigenous languages, starting with isiXhosa.

The museum is also currently hosting an adaptation of an earlier exhibition dedicated to Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee entitled Scenes from the South. The original exhibition of key Coetzee papers and artefacts opened on Coetzee's 80th birthday in February 2020, displaying mainly materials held by the Harry Ransom Centre in Austin, Texas. It was then due to travel to York and Austin but this was cancelled due to covid, and moved online as part of the National Arts Festival. Following the end of the period of lockdown in South Africa, the Amazwi holdings relating to Coetzee were then reinstalled for the adapted exhibition now on display.

At Amazwi we were very lucky to have the advice and support of Marike Beyers and Andrew Martin, who helped us to hunt for materials relating to early twentieth-century South African authors. Thanks to their efforts, we were able to dig among letters, manuscripts, reviews, photographs, and scholarly materials about William Plomer, Roy Campbell, Laurens van der Post, Sol. T. Plaatje, Douglas Blackburn, Peter Abrahams, Bessie Head and Perceval Gibbon.


Looking at the museum’s holdings on Douglas Blackburn, many of which stem from Stephen Gray’s research notes, I learnt about his long and very storied career. My interest in him stems from his 1915 novel Love Muti about an interracial romantic relationship; a rare book that would benefit from being reissued so that is could become accessible to more readers. Blackburn is, however, most famous for his novel about a Transvaal official, Prinsloo of Prinsloodorp, but he wrote books on such disparate topics as forgery detection and the secret service in South Africa.

Apart from writing books and novels, he had a highly varied career and life where he was involved in a telepathy scam, bred rabbits, was a forgery expert, worked for the Griqua chief ‘Mfaslin, wrote for and edited numerous newspapers, was charged multiple times with libel and even with assault, was shot in the battle of Pieters Hill in 1900, and even he had to write in multiple times to newspapers to dispute his own death:

As this is the third time the South African Press has killed me, I am about used to reading my own obituary, and I do not know that I would have ventured to dispel the fond illusion, but for the fact that the report is a serious slur on the Loteni district, for within the memory of the oldest inhabitant no white man has ever died there. […] No hint of death has entered this happy region until your paragraph arrived. [1]


I went to Amazwi to explore connections – both textual and personal - between South African and Bloomsbury modernists. Amazwi’s extensive holdings relating to Campbell proved particularly fruitful in this regard, comprising drafts and manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and other writings. There are also letters to and from Mary Campbell (Roy Campbell’s wife); multiple references to Campbell throughout the Plomer and van der Post collections; notes, letters, emails and papers by Campbell biographers Peter Alexander and W.H. Gardner; and various materials donated by the dramatist Anthony Akerman, who authored the play Dark Outsider about Campbell’s life.

I was delighted to see ‘the only extant Ms of The Georgiad’ in the Campbell collection.[2] This long satirical poem was famously sparked by Campbell’s discovery of his wife’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, and in it, he attacks the Bloomsbury Group and Georgian poets of the 1920s by mocking their writing and relationships, and dismissing their opinions and ideas. Satirising (amongst other things) Virginia Woolf’s Orlando by casting Sackville-West as the bisexual Androgyno, the poem goes on to describe members of the Bloomsbury Group as ‘intellectuals without intellect / And sexless folk whose sexes intersect’.[3] Here, as elsewhere in his personal correspondence and interactions, Campbell expresses his anger towards, and criticisms of, the Bloomsbury Group through homophobic and biphobic language, and by seeking to ridicule their expressions of gender nonconformity.

Yet as Alexander notes in his biography, and as many of the archival materials reveal, there is evidence to suggest that Campbell himself had homosexual affairs whilst at the University of Oxford.[4] The evidence for this comes from the W.H. Gardner collection which collates his research for an (unfinished and unpublished) Campbell biography, Voltage of Delight.[5] Letters between Gardner and Campbell’s closest friend in later life (and posthumously son-in-law) Rob Lyle reveal that Lyle sent Gardner a journal full of ‘reminiscences of Roy’ in which ‘I will mark passages the contents of which must under no circumstances be divulged to anyone – at least in the form in which they stand’.[6] On receiving the journal, Gardner wrote back:

Reading your notes, so frank and intimate, was a deeply moving experience, and I must admit there were some nasty shocks too. Would you feel inclined to agree that I ought to write two versions of any biography – one for immediate publication, the other to be kept in cold storage for at least fifty years? What, for instance, could arouse more interest to-day than your disclosure about a certain person’s youthful homosexuality [...] [7]

In Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography, Alexander references both this letter and an interview with Mary Campbell in 1975 [not part of the Amazwi holdings] to support his claim that Campbell had homosexual relationships.

There are further clues that appear elsewhere in the Amazwi holdings, for example in a 1930 letter from Plomer to the artist, Enslin Plessis. This includes the following lines:

I hope you won’t mind my saying that I hope you’re not going to develop the mania that Roy & Wyndham Lewis have about homosexuality. I am always extremely suspicious of such an attitude, which usually comes from frustration. I have reason to know that both Roy & Lewis have experimented with their own sex, & I cannot but feel that their present violence is quite pathological.[8]

Though these and other examples exist in the Amazwi collections to corroborate Alexander’s assertion that Campbell had relationships with men whilst studying in Oxford, a more recent biographer, Joseph Pearce, has refuted Alexander’s claim as ‘unfounded’. He writes:

Although it is possible that Campbell went through a bisexual phase at Oxford, Alexander makes no effort to justify the claim and chooses not to name the two men alleged to have been the objects of Campbell’s devotion. He merely cites Campbell’s friend Rob Lyle as the source of the allegation. Lyle, however, states categorically, ‘I know nothing of any “homosexual attachments”’. This being so, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary one should perhaps assume that Campbell’s friendships at Oxford were platonic. There are no grounds for Alexander’s claims that Campbell’s ‘homosexual affairs’ represent ‘another facet of his divided nature’.[9]

Contrary to Pearce’s claims, Alexander’s biography is extremely well-researched. Pearce, on the other hand, shows no evidence of direct engagement with the various South African materials accessed by Alexander. Moreover, Pearce relies almost exclusively on information gleaned from Campbell’s autobiography Light on a Dark Horse; conversations with, and memoirs by, Campbell’s daughters Tess and Anna, who were highly critical of ‘Mr Alexander’s infamous biography’;[10] and elsewhere lifts – and only slightly adapts - large chunks of text from Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography, without providing appropriate reference or credit.

Though Pearce claims that Alexander ‘chooses not to name the two men alleged to have been the objects of Campbell’s devotion’, it takes only a little reading between the lines of Alexander’s biography to identify them as William Walton and T.W. Earp. This is supported by correspondence contained in the Anthony Akerman collection. The correspondence comprises a series of emails sent between Akerman and Alexander in which they discuss Pearce’s book, as Akerman was then reviewing it for Business Day. In an email sent by Alexander dated 18th June 2001, he writes:

You don’t mention whether Pearce has drawn on Lyle’s own unpublished memoir of RC, ‘Herdsman of Apollo’. In this (typescript pp 55-6) Lyle hints delicately at RC’s affairs with T W Earp and William Walton, quotes RC as saying ‘Willie [Walton] and I had two choices before us; he chose one way and I chose the other’, compares RC/Earp with Baudelaire/Rimbaud, says RC ‘also had his ‘saison en enfer’, quotes RC’s intro to his translation of ‘Les Fleurs de Mal’ (‘I determine to translate a fellow-sinner’), Lyle says ‘this account is substantially true’, repeats that Baudelaire and RC were ‘fellow sinners’, and then adds coyly, with the important air of one who knows more, much more, ‘Beyond this I am not prepared to go’.[11]

Certainly the exploits of Campbell and Walton described in the biographies suggests an intense closeness, whilst perhaps even more telling is Campbell’s abrupt break from Earp and the comments he made about him in the years that followed. See, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘twerp’ as ‘a despicable or objectionable person; an insignificant person, a nobody; a nincompoop’, which has two usages listed by people who knew Earp at Oxford:

1944 J. R. R. Tolkien Let. 6 Oct. (1981) 94 He lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton, the composer, and going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp).

1957 R. Campbell Portugal 87 T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the ‘decadents’).[12]

Though I did not approach the Campbell archives with the intention of investigating or entering into the debates over his ‘youthful homosexuality’ and later homophobia, the efforts of Gardner, Alexander and Akerman who do pursue this aspect of Campbell’s life across the decades certainly made for interesting reading! But as they discovered, and as I am discovering, this was but one of many twists, turns and vicissitudes in Campbell’s fascinating lifetime - one populated with an array of changing friendships, opinions, politics, ideas, beliefs and interests.

Makhanda 27th July: Rhodes University Research Seminar

Our stay in Makhanda also gave us the opportunity to engage with colleagues at Rhodes University’s Department of Literary Studies in English. We gave a joint seminar on “Global Schreiner” where we presented our research from the forthcoming volume Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts edited by Jade and Andrew van der Vlies (Edinburgh University Press). Jade spoke about the late 1880s Bloomsbury modernism of Schreiner and Margaret Harkness, while Sanja traced the circulation and reception of Schreiner’s feminist ideas in Swedish early twentieth-century press. The department was very welcoming, from the great pre-seminar lunch put on by Aretha Phiri to coffee meetups with Sue Marais and Head of Department Lynda Gichanda Spencer.

We also had the opportunity to spend time with Schreiner scholars and fellow contributors to Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts, Paul Walters, Jeremy Fogg, and Dan Wylie, and we enjoyed some food and drinks together. During lunch, Paul and Jeremy very kindly gifted us an inscribed copy of their monograph, as well as copies of the short biography of Schreiner by her niece, Lyndall Gregg. We also made sure to stock up on copies of Dan’s latest works of fiction on sale at the Red Café.

Cradock 4th August: Victoria Manor, Schreiner House and Buffelskop

Challenged by Paul to climb the mountain Buffelskop to visit Schreiner’s grave, we headed off on a day trip. After a tricky drive from Makhanda to Cradock avoiding kudu and potholes, and a speedy and sweaty hike up the mountain, we managed to reach Schreiner’s spectacular last resting place and return to the car before sunset. We felt very lucky to see hartebeest, vervet monkeys and blesbok on the walk too!

We also visited the Schreiner House in Cradock where Schreiner lived together with her siblings Theo, Ettie, and Will from 1860 to 1870, and caught up with Lisa Ker (who co-organises the annual Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival) at the Victoria Manor.

Johannesburg 3rd-11th September: Bailey's African History Archives


Following Sanja’s return to Salford-via-Stockholm, I took some annual leave and then flew to Johannesburg to visit the Bailey’s African History Archives in Maboneng.

My interest in the BAHA holdings relates to writers such as Lewis Nkosi, Bessie Head and Can Themba who worked for the magazine or associated publications in the 1950s and 1960s. These writers produced novels and short works that might be considered examples of South African modernism (you can listen to / read my BBC Radio 3 postcard on Can Themba’s ‘The Suit’ here and here).

The stories published in Drum are rather different, however, and typically tend to take the form of naturalistic/realistic crime or romance stories. Despite this, the 1951-61 issues of the magazine are particularly important for revealing the ongoing relevance of key themes and ideas associated with South African modernism. Through the efforts of the Drum generation of writers, a new literary culture was shaped via a magazine that blended political resistance and artistic expression, and which strived to support and celebrate black rights, education, art, music, sport, fashion and relationships in the context of the extreme oppression, censorship and the violence of apartheid.

My stay in Johannesburg also provided the opportunity to meet up with Janet Remmington and Anthony Akerman. Janet is contributing to our co-edited collection on Schreiner, and we had a lovely lunch together at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, where she is currently a Fellow. I contacted Anthony to ask for permission to cite from his Amazwi collection in this blogpost, which he very kindly granted. When we realised we were both in the city, we thought we might as well take the opportunity to chat all things Campbell over a glass or two of wine, and I was very touched to be presented with an inscribed copy of Dark Outsider!

On my final morning in South Africa I spent a small fortune buying books at the Collectors' Treasury in Maboneng (and was remembered by the owner as having visited four years ago to empty his shelves of first edition Schreiners!). I then went to see the Nicholas Hlobo and Ravelle Pillay exhibitions at the Goodman Gallery.

In the afternoon I visited Constitution Hill, where Haroon Gunn-Salie's installation, Senzenina, is on display to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the Marikana Massacre. Haroon is one of the artists featured in our film, All That Is Buried, and you can find out more information about his work here.

We are very grateful to the many people who welcomed us, helped us, and made this trip such a wonderful and rewarding experience, especially Maria Zirra, Marike Beyers, Andrew Martin, Mthetheleli Sukula, Lynne Grant, Aretha Phiri, Sam Naidu, Sue Marais, Lynda Gichanda Spencer, Paul Walters, Dan Wylie, Jeremy Fogg, Pieter de Kock, Leon van Wyk, Bongi Maswanganyi, Janet Remmington, Anthony Akerman and Lorna Brooke, as well as our funders the AHRC and the Birgit och Gad Rausings Stiftelse för Humanistisk forskning (Birgit and Gad Rausing's Foundation for Research in the Humanities).


[1] Douglas Blackburn, ‘The Marvels of Loteni: A Voice from the Dead’, The Natal Witness 19 June 1902. Stephen Gray Collection ACC 2009. 63. 1. 3. 2. 3. Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature.

[2] Roy Campbell, The Georgiad: a satirical fantasy [poem]. Roy Campbell Collection ACC 1983. 24. 24 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [3] Roy Campbell, ‘The Georgiad’, in The Collected Poems of Roy Campbell (London: Bodley Head, 1949), pp. 201–42 (p. 208) [4] See Peter Alexander, Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp.20-1

[5] W.H. Gardner handed over his research to Alan Paton, who in turn passed the materials over to Alexander. See Anthony Akerman, 'Doting Daughters: [Review of] Judith Lütige Coullie (ed.), Remembering Roy Campbell: The Memoirs of His Daughters Anna and Tess (Hamden CT: Winged Lion Press, 2011)', Scrutiny2, 17.1 (2012), 119-123 [6] Rob Lyle to Prof W.H. Gardner (16th May 1958). Roy Campbell Collection ACC 2012. 45. 20 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [7] Prof W.H. Gardner to Rob Lyle (undated, likely June 1958). Roy Campbell Collection ACC 2012. 45. 20 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [8] William Plomer to Enslin du Plessis (11th August 1930), William Plomer Collection ACC 1974. 126. 20 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [9] Joseph Pearce, Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp.21-2. [10] Anna Campbell to AD Donker Publishers, AD Donker Publishers Collection ACC 2007. 12. 1. 5. 1 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [11] Peter Alexander to Anthony Akerman (18th June 2001), Anthony Akerman Collection ACC 2018. 97. 2. 2. 73 Room B12, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature [12] ’Twerp, n.’, OED

Further Reading

Akerman, Anthony, ‘Dark Outsider’ in Dark Outsider: Three Plays (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2000)

---, ‘Writing the Dramatic Life of Roy Campbell’, English in Africa (May 2003), 30.1 (May 2003), 5-20

Alexander, Peter, ‘Roy Campbell, William Plomer and the Bloomsbury Group’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 18.1 (1983), 120-7

Blackburn, Douglas, Prinsloo of Prinsloodorp (London: Dunbar, 1899)

---, Love Muti (London: Everett, 1915)

Campbell, Roy, Light on a Dark Horse: An Autobiography (London: Penguin, 1971)

Chapman, Michael, ed. The Drum Decade: Stories from the 1950s (Scottsville; University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012)

222 views0 comments


bottom of page